Developing The Concept Portrait

Lighting Equipment


Ever wonder how those glamorous studio fashion shots are made? How the photographer is able to guide and capture the necessary elements - the model's pose, the lighting, the makeup - in just the right way? Well the secret is, none of it is an accident. And the more you pay attention to these elements, the better your shots will turn out.

Seasoned fashion photographer John Beckett reveals many of his tips and tricks in this straightforward, step-by-step beauty portrait lesson.

Topics Covered:

  •     Developing the Concept
  •     Building Studio Rim Lighting
  •     Creating Negative Fill and Preventing Lens Flare
  •     The Test Shots
  •     Controlling Light Spill with Grids
  •     Flipping Panels for a Positive Fill
  •     Common Retouching Steps
  •     An Alternate Pose


  •     Nikon D200
  •     Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 lens

PhotoflexLightingSchool is pleased to present John Beckett and Julie Koeth of J2 Productions. A huge thanks to their team for producing this lesson!

To learn more about John & Julie visit: J2 Photo Pro

To learn more about beauty stylist Ella visit: Beauty By Ella

Shot on location at Aslanian Studio Rentals

Developing the Concept

The image we created for this lesson was an experiment for a light setup that has been in my head for a number of years. It came from a style of light used in a movie I saw years ago that I tucked away to "play" with in the future.

In the movie, the lighting came from both sides and slightly behind the characters, creating a rim light effect on both right sides of their heads. It gave a very moody and mysterious feel to the film.

Although this would not seem to be an appropriate lighting style for a beauty shot, the idea intrigued me if it could be made to work. I felt it would be most effective with a profile shot of the model and spent a few days imagining and designing the shot only in my head before doing some sketches on paper. [Figure 1]

Figure 1

In my sketch, there were flowers coming out of the subject’s hair to give an interesting focal point and touch of color. This idea created the challenge of engineering a hairstyle to hold the flowers in place. Julie and I discussed several possibilities before she came up with the idea to use a hair roller as a base that would allow the flowers to be inserted into the hollow opening formed by the roller and hidden under the hair.

For years, I've often used a mannequin head to check my lighting. Here, we used it to determine the scale and shape for building our flower arrangement into the hair. [Figure 2]

Figure 2

We always involve our models in the process of creating a shot. This helps to make them feel part of the team. In explaining the ideas, we welcome the input they may have and it prepares them for the poses we'll need for the shoot. [Figure 3]


Figure 3

Once we all understand the objective and how we're going to accomplish it, the process of makeup and hair begins. [Figures 4 and 5]

While the makeup here was in process, I started the lighting setup for our lesson.


Figure 4


Figure 5

Equipment Tip: Wherever we're shooting, I make it a rule to arrange all the gear in a single spot that will minimize the distance from the set and line up in an order convenient to the way I work. [Figure 6]


Figure 6

Building Studio Rim Lighting

When we're on location, I determine where the equipment staging area will be, based on security, ease of access and distance from the sets. And I always keep as much as possible on a rolling cart until it's needed. There's nothing that wears an assistant out more than moving gear from one location to the next. Thinking carefully about these details can save a lot of steps, time and energy.

The choice of lighting for our shoot was a Photoflex continuous lighting kit, which included a medium SilverDome soft box with a 1000 watt bulb and a small SilverDome soft box, also with a 1000 watt bulb.

I chose to use continuous lighting in order to better observe how the light and shadows would fall with this kind of setup, and because of a look I had achieved with the StarLite on another beauty shoot done for a magazine assignment. There is a different, somewhat warmer feel to tungsten lighting than there is with strobes.

For our shoot, I positioned the mannequin head on a light stand in the approximate spot our model would occupy. When possible I like to keep the subject at least ten feet from the backdrop. This gives me flexibility in controlling both light and shadow on both the backdrop and the model. [Figure 7]


Figure 7

The LiteStands were then set in place [Figure 8] with a medium SilverDome to the subject's right at head level, and a small SilverDome on the left side. [Figures 9 & 10]

Figure 8


Figure 9


Figure 10

Creating Negative Fill and Preventing Lens Flare

Two 39x72" LitePanel frames were laid out ready to set in position. These would give a shoot-through opening with the intent of using a "negative fill" lighting technique, with the black side of the panel covers towards the model. [Figures 11–18]


Figure 11


Figure 12


Figure 13


Figure 14


Figure 15


Figure 16


Figure 17


Figure 18

Had I used white panels, they would have acted as fill sources to the front that would have opened the shadow areas too much for the look I was after. These black panels also helped to prevent any lens flare created by the SilverDome soft boxes.

The Test Shots

After setting up the panels, I took a shot with the mannequin head to check the fall of light on the subject and background before determining the next step. [Figure 19]


Figure 19

At this point, Julie was far enough along with makeup to allow bringing our model, Ella, on set for a test shot to see how the light would look on her face and to work out a beginning pose. In this shot, you can also see how the hair was formed around the roller to allow insertion of the flowers. [Figure 20]


Figure 20

Controlling Light Spill with Grids

With respect to the lighting I wanted for this shot, there was a little too much light spilling onto the background from the soft boxes. In order to cut down the spill, we placed black cards (1 & 2) next to the soft boxes to eliminate the spill. We also added a 40-degree Soft Box Grid (3) over the small soft box to narrow the beam of light falling on the side of our subject's face and neck. [Figures 21-23]

Figure 21


Figure 22


Figure 23

As you can see from the split comparison, the Grid didn't affect the light illuminating the figure, but it did cut down on the background spill. [Figure 24]

Figure 24

At this point, Ella's makeup was ready with hair and flowers in place. After a few on-set adjustments, Julie sat in place to demonstrate the beginning pose we were after. [Figures 25-26]


Figure 25


Figure 26

I took another shot with Ella and it was obvious that the shadow would be too deep were she to turn to face the camera. [Figure 27]

Figure 27

Flipping Panels for a Positive Fill

Next, panel "B" was turned in reverse so its white side bounced more light into the shadow area of her face. [Figures 28-30]

The ability to quickly change from a subtractive to a reflective surface is one of the great features of the LitePanels. The result here was more pleasing and allowed a greater posing range for head positions.

Figure 28


Figure 29


Figure 30

Ella has very clean skin and her makeup was perfect, but the dramatic angle of light cutting across her face emphasized pores and blemishes. It would require some Photoshop work to make it a more idyllic image.

Common Retouching Steps

In the side-by-side comparison, you can see how wrinkles in the neck were removed, and the "Adam's apple" smoothed out. The skin was softened, all blemishes retouched, and the smile lines and chin wrinkle were removed.

Using the "Liquify" tool in Photoshop, I made a slight adjustment to her right cheek that helped give a more refined look to her facial structure. Her left eye was brightened slightly as well and stray hairs were removed at the base of the neck and along the crown of the head. [Figure 31]


Figure 31

With the "up-do" hairstyle, the deep red roses and lips, the final image brings to mind a look and feel of the 1940's pin-up girls. [Figure 32]


Figure 32

An Alternate Pose
We made a few quick changes with flowers and light to show how an alternative look could be achieved rather easily.

To sculpt the sides of her face we moved the panels in close to her sides turning the black surface of the fabric inward. [A and B, Figure 33]

Figure 33

A Grid [Arrow 1, Figure 34] was added to the medium soft box to help create a more focused, yet soft light source, and a black card was placed slightly above head height to cut down the light spill on the backdrop. [Arrow 2, Figure 34]


Figure 34

The card placed above the model’s head also caused a gradual shadowing on the backdrop to subtly separate the figure from the backdrop. [Figure 35]


Figure 35

With everything in place, we began shooting. [Figure 36]


Figure 36

Here is one of the shots I selected before any retouching. [Figure 37]


Figure 37

Now here's the same shot after adjustments and retouching. [Figure 38]


Figure 38

Looking at the "before" next to the "after" shot, you can see the changes made around the mouth and cheeks using the Photoshop "Clone Stamp" tool. [Figure 39]

There were adjustments in the neck, chest and shoulder areas using a combination of "Liquify" (found in the Filters menu) and through the use of the "Clone Stamp" tool again.

There are a number of programs and various Photoshop tools that can be used to smooth the skin, but in a case like this, it's mostly a matter of direct lighting and makeup.


Figure 39

And here's the crew! [Figure 40]

Figure 40

Over the years, I have found testing and exercises in "creative play" often results in portfolio samples that secure jobs. But more importantly, taking a break from the guidelines and pressure imposed with assignment shooting helps to keep you excited about photography, while learning something new from the experience and adding one more technique to your bag of tricks.

Camera Info:
Camera: Nikon D200
Lens: Nikkor 85mm, f/1.8
ISO: 400
Aperture: f/5.6
Shutter speed: 1/60th of a second

Lighting Equipment